Targeting-specific companies to generate awareness and engagement for your product or service is certainly not new. However, with an increase in the number of decision-makers and influencers involved in a typical B2B purchase, averaging 5.4 per CEB Insights, the importance of it has grown exponentially. Supported by better and cheaper access to buyer data and newer marketing technologies, account-based marketing (in short referred to as, “ABM”) promises – and often delivers – better B2B growth. According to Alterra Group, “ABM had higher ROI than other marketing activities, according to 97 percent of marketers in a survey.”
As with any new buzzworthy marketing term, there is probably more hype than substance associated right now with ABM. The concept of targeting specific buyers at named accounts with highly relevant messages and offers have been effective for decades.
Although the new shininess emitting from account-based marketing is taking the concept to a deeper micro-level of detail enabled primarily through sophisticated technology. I doubt whether most industrial manufacturing and even some technology companies are well-positioned to plan and effectively execute at such a micro-level. What I overhear from CEOs within these industries about account-based marketing, makes me confident that my doubts aren’t without merit. But I absolutely do believe even the less buzzworthy version of account-based marketing does provide significant potential for industrial manufacturing and technology companies. It’s definitely worth investigating.
An Account-based Marketing Approach for Industrial Manufacturing and Technology Providers
Instead of writing about what account-based marketing is from a buzz-worthy perspective, I’m going to define it in practical terms specifically for industrial manufacturing and technology companies. Targeting specific accounts and the available marketing channels to do so are readily available for these B2B companies to adopt into their acquisition marketing efforts. In the following paragraphs, I’ll lay out a seven-step framework for developing and executing a “modified” account-based marketing program that every industrial and technology company could start planning for tomorrow.
Before I dive into the framework, you should know that building an account-based marketing program, without first having employed an inbound marketing one, will require more effort, time and money. After all, account-based marketing consists of components that combine inbound and outbound tactics. Components including content marketing, lead nurturing, buyer data, funnel and sales pipeline structures and marketing automation and CRM technologies. If these components are not already available to support an account-based marketing program, then expect to add those into your buildout.
Practical Framework for Executing an Account-Based Marketing Program
What follows is a seven-step framework for planning and implementing a modified account-based marketing program. This framework will help you identify the critical components. But the ultimate success of the program will lay in how well you develop and execute the details at each step.
Step 1: Profile your Target Buyers
Effective marketing, in general, is a result of how well you understand your buyers. Even with the most primitive form of marketing, you won’t grab a person’s attention and generate engagement if the message isn’t relevant and the offer isn’t valuable to that potential buyer. It seems horribly obvious but putting this into practice doesn’t happen often enough.
Think about marketing as floors of a building. You cannot build the glitzy penthouse until a stable foundation is constructed. Such is the case with marketing. The foundation is a deep understanding of your target buyer.
Understanding your buyers involves identifying demographics, firmographics, and psychographics. And similar to the “floors” metaphor I used above, buyer data is also layered – from the foundation up to the penthouse. Demographics like job title and job level builds the buyer data foundation. It provides an important start to aggregating your target buyers. But as you add psychographic and firmographic data, your insights transform for how to craft more relevant messages and offers.
Psychographics information centers on your buyer’s habits, hobbies, spending behavior and values. I prefer to clarify this further in a B2B buying context as the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs regarding the challenges and goals held by buyers in their functional, social, and emotional roles within an organization. Individuals have jobs to do and they perform those jobs within multiple contexts. Your goal is to uncover those jobs, challenges, and goals across each context.
Firmographics come into greater play with an account-based marketing program. They are “descriptive attributes of firms that can be used to aggregate individual firms into meaningful market segments,” (Source.) Organizational structure, purchasing roles, authority levels and so on are firmographic data points.
At this initial step, I also recommend developing an ideal customer profile for your targeted companies. If you have a CRM, this can be a fairly straight-forward project. If you only have purchasing data in your billing system, then this may take some more work using Excel.
Your focus is on defining the type of customers you most desire to attract, engage and sell to within your target markets. Not that you’ll abandon other opportunities, but account-based marketing is about concentrating effort on a select number of highly valuable target companies.
Your ABM program may target 20 to 300 companies depending on the scale of your marketing and sales operations, your target market and how you define your “ideal” customer. Some ways to define “ideal” is revenue, organizational structure attributes that tend to speed up purchasing cycles, profitability, accessibility (e.g. geography, existing relationships or channels) or retention (lifetime value.)
Combined, the buyer data helps you develop BUYER PERSONAS. We won’t go into detail now about how to create buyer personas. Spend time developing your buyer personas before you move to the next step. You’ll leverage these personas at every step moving forward.
Another crucial part of this initial step involves defining the BUYER’S JOURNEY. The “journey” is a process that recognizes an individual’s progression through a series of stages – research, consideration, decision – and culminating with a purchase. Ideally a purchase of your product or service that enables the buyer to perform his or her job.
Your goal is to determine the what, why, where and how your buyers progress through their buying journey. You do this through a combination of customer interviews and analytics. The interviews are relatively easy to conduct. If you don’t use a marketing automation or CRM platform, you won’t have the analytics.
During your interviews and research, you want to gather information to best describe what the buyers think, experience and feel at each stage across the journey. Work to answer these questions:
- Triggers. What causes this step to kickoff?
- Tasks. What is the user trying to achieve at this step?
- Questions. What does the user want to know at this step?
- Touchpoints. How does the user interact with the organization at this point?
- Emotions. What is the user feeling at this step in the process?
- Weaknesses. How does the organization let the user down at this step?
Once you have your personas developed and the buyer’s journey sketched out, it’s time to start crafting your message platform.
Step 2: Developing a Message Platform
Once you developed your buyer personas and where they are going (journey), you can start defining the messaging, points of difference and reasons to believe (proof points). Your goal is to match the right message and offer to the right attributes at the right time across the journey stages. You’re playing a dual-role in executing this effort.
- First, you are supporting the buyer by offering high-value information that equips them with what they need to move from stage to stage. This involves some art and science to find the right balance. Not too pushy but not too passive either.
- Second, as you’re supporting your buyer, you are also positioning your product or service as the best alternative to successfully perform the buyer’s job. If you overweight the supporting function, you may give away too much. Likewise, if you overweight the positioning of your product or service (which many B2B companies do) you risk losing the buyer. Remember the old adage, “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM.)
In today’s B2B market, buyers have many options, including simply doing nothing, as alternatives to your product or service. If there is a tilt in one direction or the other, have it be in the direction of over-supporting your buyer. In this situation, even if they don’t buy, they could become a great evangelist for you based on the great experience they had in the sales process. It isn’t a bad thing and could generate word of mouth referrals.
Developing your message platform is important for driving consistency across your account-based marketing program. Because you’ll be orchestrating activities across marketing and sales, every person needs to be operating from the same playbook. You don’t want to confuse buyers with marketing messages that state one value proposition while your sales team states another. This confusion leads to roughly 68% of buyers walking away from a company interaction confused and frustrated. If you are going to put concentrated effort into a select number of targeted accounts you absolutely can’t risk annoying these people.
Once you have your message platform developed, its time to select the target accounts for your program.
Step 3: Select Targeted Accounts
The next step is to develop your target account list. This is probably the easiest step for industrial manufacturing and technology companies because most sales teams already have done this work. Sales teams typically have a list of the top companies that are best suited to buy their products and services. If this list is available, it’s the best place to start.
Analyze the named account list against what you have gathered from your buyer analysis and ideal customer profile. Does the list fit with the firmographics you have gathered? Do your buyer personas actually work within these companies? If not, you have some internal buyer alignment issues that need to be addressed ASAP.
Typically, there is an opportunity to expand or narrow the targeted account list gathered from the sales team. As mentioned earlier, the number of target companies you select depends on your organizational resources. Account-based marketing is meant to concentrate efforts on a select number of companies. In other words, the very effort entails time and attention.
If you are a marketing team of one and you have a meager marketing budget, 20-30 target companies are probably way more than enough. This is why I HIGHLY recommend you first launch a broader outbound and/or inbound marketing program to cast a wider net while you later concentrate efforts on a smaller number of select companies. In my opinion, you’re better suited as a marketer to launch inbound and work with sales on outbound initially, learn more about your buyers and then move to higher ground with an account-based marketing program.
Step 4: Gather Contact Data
Once you have defined your target account list, your next step is to gather individual contact data within each of those accounts. For this project, you need to rely on a third-party data company like:
With account-based marketing and specifically since a majority of B2B buying is done in a buying group, your goal is to identify each individual participating in the buying process. This is where you leverage the buyer personas and firmographics you gathered earlier.
If you haven’t thoroughly researched the buying group then it’s OK to get started with what you know now and add as you continue to learn more. A few additional “buyers” to consider are executive sponsors, check-writers (e.g. CFO), procurement, IT and more senior specialists (e.g. subject matter experts or peer-influencers.) You have to understand the degree in which these roles need to be messaged and influenced.
Much like with the RACI matrix for internal communications where participants either:
- Do the work (e.g. makes the decision)
- Need to be informed of the work (what decision is being made as an FYI)
- Are accountable for the work (must be involved since impacted by the decision like the budget holder and business leader)
- Need to be consulted on the work (e.g. the final user who may be implementing or are reliant on this new product or service)
You need to understand similar responsibilities for each individual in the buying group. Even though the cost of accurate contact data is less expensive, you still need to identify exactly what you need. Personalizing and segmentation are opportunities that may later lead to greater results. So consider collecting data that will help expand your capabilities later versus only getting contact data now.
Once you have this information, and the contact data for each of these individuals, then you can move to the next step.
Step 5: Plan Account Targeting Tactics
By this point, you have invested a lot of time in learning and planning. Over my eighteen years of B2B marketing experience, I can honestly say that learning and planning is time well spent as it leads to deliberate execution.
Now, it’s time to leverage your buyer personas again to determine how best to reach them with your messages and offers in your message platform. Unlike inbound marketing though, your efforts are more targeted and action-oriented than broad and passive. While inbound is effective for when a prospective buyer is actively seeking to address a problem that your product or service can solve, account-based marketing is targeting companies whether or not they are actively engaged in a search for a solution. Therefore, your messaging and offer must be capable of triggering latent intent. This is made easier if you have selected a list of companies that possess an acknowledged pain with urgency to correct it. Hence, crafting your messaging means tuning into current environmental factors that could help persuade individuals to prioritize solving their problems associated with your product or service. Enter the “art” of marketing and sales.
There are more than 120 different marketing channels that potentially could be used to reach your buyers. Your goal is to find the 3-4 that best fit your buyers’ information gathering and engagement preferences. An account-based marketing program will integrate multiple marketing channels. They typically will involve email, direct mail, phone calls, paid search and or paid social, display ads via audience targeting and remarketing. You’ll be incorporating landing pages as well to help optimize the message relevance, call-to-actions and offer fulfillment.
Executing the details of your marketing channels, segmentation strategy, nurturing series and associated processes is so critical. You absolutely need an attention to detail to get it right and working effectively. A poorly structured and executed account-based marketing program won’t be worth the extra effort if not executed correctly.
As with inbound marketing, you are building out the program to pull buyers through each stage of their buying journey. The messaging and offers you developed n your message platform should map to the needs of each buying stage. Only when a buyer resolves the needs of each stage will they progress to the next one. However, I’m incorrectly making the journey sound like a linear progression. Buying is often not at all a linear process – it’s non-linear. Although you are setting up a linear process, just know that buyers may traverse it in a non-linear, “jump-in-and-out” fashion.a
Your goal is to create a playbook for each of your buyers as they work through their journey and how you are going to engage them initially and then consecutively throughout the program until they purchase. For a typical B2B sales cycle, you may be talking about 9-12 months of ongoing engagement efforts. Also, when you first implement any type of new program, it will take at least six months (probably more like nine months) until you start noticing consistent outcomes.
Step 6: Track Buyer Engagement
The final step, before executing your modified account-based marketing program, is establishing a tracking system. A marketing automation and CRM platform is a minimum requirement. Although you could struggle to get by with less, the time commitment will eventually overwhelm your resources or you’ll lack the data to effectively hone your program for greater results at lower costs.
The essential objective you are after with your tracking is to determine whether your concentrated efforts to engage individuals within certain companies is effective. Is your message generating awareness and are your offers being actively pursued? Of the say 50 targeted accounts you have selected, how many are you actively engaging in your efforts and how are they progressing through your sales process?
Whatever marketing technology platform you employ, it must be capable of giving you the necessary buyer insights to optimize or troubleshoot your program quickly and frequently. Pursuing account-based marketing requires time, resources and money so visibility into the returns is critical to justify it. Without data readily available to calculate engagement metrics like stage conversions, new sales opportunities, sales velocity and such, subjective justification won’t cut it with leadership and certainly won’t help you improve results.
If you haven’t begun tagging marketing channels to determine channel effectiveness including cost per lead, cost per sales-ready lead, cost per customer and so on, then you probably aren’t yet ready for the level of tracking required for an account-based marketing program. As I mentioned earlier, ABM takes processes to a more micro-level of detail.
For industrial manufacturing and technology companies that are just starting to seriously pursue acquisition marketing, I would do all of these steps but not get into the weeds as much with your targeting. Select your ideal companies, target the known buyer personas and work them through the buyer’s journey. This modified approach gives the 20% to the 80% by eliminating some waste from attracting companies outside your ideal customer profile.
Step 7: Execute – Measure – Optimize – Troubleshoot
Once you have all of these plans in place, it’s time to pull the trigger and execute. This sounds like an endpoint but in reality, it’s simply a kickoff of another process.
For the execution process, you are leveraging your tracking data to determine areas of your program to either optimize or troubleshoot. If you program is generating a strong number of engaged buyers from your targeted account ist then optimize around improving conversions or velocity from one stage to the next. If your results are falling short of your desired outcomes, it’s time to troubleshoot where barriers exist and figure out how to eliminate them. The rubber meets the road when it comes time for execution.
Wrapping It Up on the Modified Account-based Marketing Program
When you look back across these seven steps, you’ll quickly realize that it’s not too different than every other well-planned marketing campaign.
You’re correct – it isn’t!
The major difference is leveraging data and the combination of inbound and outbound tactics to specifically target a select number of ideal companies. It’s the narrowing of efforts to seriously concentrate on serving a select number of companies exceptionally well that makes marketing “account-based”.
The challenge is with employing the right tools, including marketing technology, to do it right so it generates superior results. Because it takes more effort than traditional inbound and outbound, especially in the early planning steps, it must generate higher returns to surpass a greater level of investment.
If you have the appetite and have already built a good customer acquisition foundation, then account-based marketing may be the best next move you can make for your organization. But before you jump in to get started, I highly recommend you contact us to discuss the opportunity. We’ll help you determine if your foundation is right and help guide you through a modified implementation for account-based marketing that puts you on the best track for greater B2B growth.
Kevin Gold is a B2B acquisition marketing and growth consultant with more than 18 years of executive marketing and business leadership experience. Next Leap Strategy develops and executes customer acquisition programs for industrial manufacturing and technology providers to achieve more consistent and faster leads and sales growth. Contact Kevin for help finding your next customers.